‘Modern Whore’ is a love letter to sex workers—and the art of the hustle

Andrea Werhun’s memoir captures the challenges, joys and humour of a career in sex work

Sitting across from each other at a coffee shop in late May, Toronto-based writer, artist and sex worker Andrea Werhun and I discuss memoir as a genre. We’re chatting, mostly, about her recently published book Modern Whore—my copy rests on the table between us, and on the dust jacket a portrait of Werhun looks up at us beneath a set of dramatic strip eyelashes. Jokingly, I say that Xtra must have wanted to cover her book launch because, in my opinion, memoir is an inherently homosexual genre of literature—a medium that should be reserved for icons and it girls and those who can pull off a feather boa. Werhun counters a little more seriously, reflecting that she doesn’t know whether she’d call it homosexual, but she would almost certainly call it narcissistic. “There’s something about it—like looking at your own reflection in the water.” 

In a sense, Modern Whore is a reflection—and a beautiful one at that, with Werhun’s dolled-up face featured prominently not only on the cover, but in several photographs throughout the book. Still, the memoir is anything but a narcisistic retelling: it’s a love letter to sex workers and the art and glory of the hustle.

Modern Whore is the latest in a long line of collaborations between Werhun and her creative partner, director Nicole Bazuin. “I met Nicole on the set of a music video she was directing,” Werhun says. “She said, ‘Hello, I’m Nicole, I’m the director of this music video. The go-go dancer has not shown up, so I’m also going to be playing the other go-go dancer.’” 

Getting ready in the dressing room set the foundation for “a fundamentally collaborative form of friendship,” Werhun says. Later on, it was Bazuin who urged her to work on turning her stories of escorting into a larger project. 

It is customary for those working in the adult industry to maintain some distance from their work and their “real lives” for their own safety and comfort. Pseudonyms and fake answers to the question “what do you do?” are as much part of the business as Honey Birdette lingerie sets and cash drawers. 

But Werhun eventually realized the friction between wanting to tell her story and maintain privacy was insurmountable—she wanted to be both portrait artist and muse. “If I’m going to tell this story,” she remembers thinking, “I have to come out. So I came out [as a sex worker].” 

The Modern Whore memoir is the latest iteration of a project spanning multiple years; first a self-published book,—made possible by a Kickstarter campaign, and selling out of its print run within the year—then a movie premiering as part of SXSW 2020’s Documentary Shorts Program and now finally an expanded-edition opus with a heavyweight publishing team. “If you have a product of quality,” Werhun says, “there’s a good chance someone will notice you, and you will be plucked from obscurity.”

 

Despite Werhun’s pride in her work and the bravado with which she shares it, publishing as a sex worker under her own legal name is a serious act of vulnerability. Her practice has evolved into exploring and perfecting the endlessly iterative art of coming out as a sex worker. She mentions her coming out on national television in the 2016 CBC Gem documentary Sugar Sisters, her coming out when questioned about her right to tell sex worker stories at a book fair, her coming out to her mom (“she looked at me like I shot her 15 times”) and to her publishers and to her partner’s family. 

“Coming out is a lifelong trust fall.

Coming out, as so many of us have learned in various capacities whether it be as queer, or trans or as a sex worker (or some combination of these things), is a lifelong trust fall. Werhun has gotten very good at it—or at least she’s had a lot of practice. “In the beginning,” she says, “when I would come out it was like I was almost wincing saying it. And then eventually I was able to observe that the way I came out determined how the person I was coming out to reacted.” 

Werhun’s writing—the way she comes out to the reader—is funny and poignant and conversational. The reader is always in on the joke. In one chapter she shares her earliest memories of crossed boundaries, in another she talks about a grown man pissing his pants. She talks about the electricity of bonding with the beautiful woman she was about to “pop her duo cherry with” in the cab, and includes tips for the trade like “if you feel you’ve been violated in any way, get the fuck out. Take that goddamn money and run.”

The anecdotes are accompanied by glossy, full-colour photographs of the author hamming it up. It feels intimate because it is. “At the end of the day,” Werhun says, “this is an experiment of hope, because I really am hoping I don’t get hurt in this process, in any irreparable way. That is the ask in coming out,” she reflects. “Here I am, please don’t hurt me.” 

“I’m a cis, white sex worker who can have the audacity to ask for that—and have that be respected because of my identities or my assumed identities. That’s not the case for everybody. In fact it’s an incredibly rare occurrence. The privilege of sex worker storytelling is not accessible to most people.” 

If writing this book is an act of bursting through a door, saying “here I am,” Werhun’s hope is that she is leaving that same door open on the way out—for someone to carry the baton (or stripper pole or Bad Dragon dildo or Pleaser 10-inch heel) with a different sex work story to tell. If memoir is, as Werhun says, an inherently narcissistic pursuit, Modern Whore feels genre-bending—it is the product of looking into the pool’s reflection and seeing so many others looking back. 

A photo of the writer Noelle Perdue

Noelle Perdue is a digital artist and writer living in Toronto, Ontario. With a background in computer programming and porn production, she loves to explore the intimate relationships we have with technology.

Read More About:
Culture, Books, Review, Coming Out, Sex work, Toronto

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